What is the 'real' Rwanda of today?

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

This essay discusses my own thoughts and observations from my most recent trip to Rwanda in September 2019 on the hazards and benefits of development for Rwanda whilst still holding true to their history and culture.

Due to a failed visa application and 6mths delay whilst we appeal, I returned back to Rwanda in September 2019 to visit my husband, but this time with my parents in tow. Their last visit in November 2018 was a fleeting and busy occasion all set around our wedding. My mum in particular wanted to get to know more of Kigali city so this time we rented a house in the city suburbs of Kimironko for a week (much cheaper than a hotel and more privacy and amenities) and balanced the week with resting and getting to know the city better.

For this trip I was now the tour guide for both my parents and my husband. I wanted to show my parents the 'real' Rwanda whilst showing my husband what his country had to offer in terms of leisure and tourism. Even though he works in hospitality he had little hands on experience of the things 'tourists' want to do. Because of this I reflected a lot about how Rwanda balances the past history of the genocide with progression and development, now and in the future. Do they promote themselves through the lense of genocide or are tourists being put off by it. Does this change tourists view of them? Do they want to be known as a country whose name is always linked to genocide or do they want to shed this title and promote what else it has to offer? Through my circle of friends in Rwanda, natives and Brits, I heard about the developing influence of the Chinese who are investing in the infrastructure of Rwanda through road building and industry.

Our first issue before even stepping out of the door of the house was how my husband and my parents negotiated their cultural differences. Being well travelled my parents are respectful of the culture of any country they visit and apply the 'when in rome' philosophy. But now my husband was part of our family and eventually will be so in the UK so both had to adapt their cultures.

Dad and Manzi in battle over the traditional Rwandan game of Igisoro. Once taught, Manzi was no longer the son-in-law or master but an equal opponent.

In Rwanda it is not acceptable to talk with the in-laws unless they talk to you, particularly prior to the wedding. They would invariably occupy separate rooms in the house on social occassions unless the in-laws instigated communication. Like me, my parents (mum in particular) are more observers and not forthcoming social butterflies that would naturally lead conversations by asking the other their views or opinions. They may comment on their observations but this does not neccasarily invite the other person in.

My husband had many questions for them about how to build a happy marriage and relationship but to him it was not right to ask unless he was invited too by them. So I had to mediate and encourage him to just ask. I made the point that by not doing so it makes it more awkward for them. So between them they both had to overcome their cultural and social awkwardness, which after a few games of cards and Igisoro, and watching my mum get rather tiddly (only seen when she feels comfortable with the company) on coffee liquor, the ice was broken.

I had not realised quite how much my family had relied on me to plan the week until Thursday when all the plans were complete I mentally crashed. But having visited Rwanda as both a tourist and living the everyday life there with my husband it made sense. I also knew what they would enjoy.

Luckily for me they were very much more interested in getting to know the everyday living of the people, to get a sense of how life is there and the feel of the people. I say luckily because, whilst it is rapidly developing, Rwanda is thankfully yet to have become commercially orientated towards tourists apart from gorila trekking. This however needs little promotion as they have hiked the prices up to unachievable amounts for the everyday person to manage the demand. When you google ‘things to do’ in Kigali, after listing all the things I already had on my list, they were scraping the boat by suggesting quiz nights, the casino and horse riding….not what I would deem as typically Rwandan activities, as my husband backed up.

This brought me my first learning about Rwanda for this trip from my husband. Having taught him how to relax and enjoy doing things together such as play cards, be challenged by the traditional game of Igisoro or basket weaving at the womens centre for a morning, we realised that ‘hobbies’ was not a typical thing to have in Rwanda. And so how do they know how to amuse the tourists in leisure pursuits? Priorities for a majority of the population are collecting food and water from the local markets and water pumps, working your land to harvest for market, going to school which may mean walking 5kms for a 7.30am start. Basket weaving, sewing, dress making are all done to sell or dress yourself, not done purely for pleasure as we do.

As my husband also came to realise, when you lose your family you grow up in a limited bubble in which you have created just to survive and so only think to do what those around you are doing. So to just stop for the day and visit Rwanda’s Big 5 was never on his radar.

As mentioned earlier I had to consider how much we wanted or needed to make of the genocide during this trip. Whilst, as I pertained earlier, some Rwandans may say they want to be recognised for who they are now without the label of 'survivors of the genocide'. But I am yet to really hear this. In most conversations with Rwandans it is referenced somehow. Not in a "let's focus on this and feel sorry for us" but in a "it is part of our past culture that we are recovering from and need to be sure to prevent it again in the future". They want to celebrate their survival and recovery and do this they, by default, have to reference the genocide.

Our first day of 'touristing' summed up the balance we negotiated between acknowledging the genocide whilst respecting the progress of the here and now. We paid our respects to the genocide and then visited one of my favourite art galleries full of vibrant and contemporary life.

I decided that, with the genocide being the root of the country that Rwanda is today, my first priority was that my parents truly understood the genocide so that they could view the country, not just seeing them as they are now but by truly knowing where they had come from. This past had to shape every interaction we had with every person we met, be it they were unfamiliar and fascinated with my older parents, they may be scared and suspicious of why we took their photos, they may be excited about what we may bring them that would open up their world. It was not about continually referencing the genocide but truly understanding it and respecting it as part of their story.

From my own experience, it would not benefit them to visit the clinical Kigali Genocide memorial. I had been there and it barely touched me. It serves as a place to pay official respects, as we have the cenotaph. There are rows of beautifully marbled plaques, name lists and plinths. Alleys of information boards to read which can be found on the internet, and a few artifacts curated and displayed under staged lighting and backgrounds to try and portray a sense of what happened. For a first time and brief viewer of Rwanda maybe this is enough. But instead I chose to take them to Ntarama memorial church just 40 minutes south of Kigali.

Here, for the first time the hills start to flatten as we drove through vast rice swamps, a prevalent place for where Tutsis hid and were killed during the genocide. Similar to Nyamata church a little bit further along, it remains a more truthful reminder of the horrors that unfolded that no printed boards of words can express. Unlike Kigali Memorial nothing is hidden, everything is left and preserved as it was found.

I have visited all three memorials and out of them all whe